There are many symbols that represent the field of medicine such as a red cross or a stethoscope. However, one of the most famous symbols representing medicine and healthcare is the rod of Asclepius. This symbol is used in the logos of numerous medical associations and army medical corps. Those who do know of the rod may describe it as a staff with two wings and two snakes intertwining on it, but this is a common misconception. That symbol is called the caduceus and is actually the symbol of Hermes – the Greek god of messengers, merchants, markets, the high roads, gamblers and thieves. The misconception is very common and many medical associations use the caduceus as their symbol instead of the correct Rod of Asclepius.
The actual rod of Asclepius is much simpler looking, as it is simply a stick with one serpent intertwining it. The reason that it is associated with medicine and healthcare is that it was wielded by the Greek god Asclepius – the god of medicine and healing. Asclepius was the son of Apollo and had a particular interest in the human body and the healing of ailments. The ancient Greeks often referred to Asclepius in the field of medicine. In fact, the famous Hippocratic Oath originally began with the line “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…” (Apollo was the god of many things and medicine was one of his minor domains).
The rod of Asclepius
So why does the rod of Asclepius have a serpent wrapped around it? In Greek mythology, it is said that Asclepius commanded many non-venomous snakes which he used in healing rituals. The snakes would crawl around the temple, living freely among the physicians and patients. A certain species of snake called the Aesculapian snake is considered to be the model for this story. The reason why the Greeks chose the snake as the animal of healing may be because snakes shed their skin periodically – symbolising rebirth and fertility.
Another possible root of the symbol may be the traditional treatment for a certain parasitic infection. The Guinea worm (Dracunculus medinensis) is a parasite that lives under the skin, digging itself out through a painful blister when mature. As the blisters burn, the patient immerses the area in cold water to soothe it. The worm detects the change in temperature and releases its larva, completing its life cycle. The traditional treatment was to slowly pull the worm out of the skin, entwine it around a stick and leave it for a period of hours to weeks until it would be completely removed. The Greeks may have taken this image (of the worm wrapped around a stick) and applied it to the rod of Asclepius.